Otome games or girls romance games are a niche genre in Japan dominated by Idea Factory, Konami, and Tecmo Koei. For the most part, otome titles have been ignored, which is why we’re interested in Aksys who has been localizing romance games for the West. They picked up Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom, which is tied to an anime series. Sweet Fuse: At Your Side is also from Idea Factory, but it has a modern day setting and Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune as one of the characters. We spoke with Ben Bateman, the editor at Aksys who worked on Hakuoki and Virtue’s Last Reward, to talk about Sweet Fuse and the state of the otome market.
It’s neat that Aksys is building the girls romance genre in the West. How did Hakuoki as a series do with respect to Aksys’ expectations?
Ben Bateman, Editor: I don’t actually know the answer to this, so I’m going to say it totally blew them away. We’re literally swimming in piles of Hakuoki money over here. In all seriousness, though, it must have done pretty well since we’re still on the otome train.
I can tell you that it’s paid huge dividends in terms of fan good will. We got a bunch of fan mail for it, and different people brought us cupcakes and chocolates. So when I advocate for more otome games I am of course doing it for the fans! And not because I want more free treats. Not at all. In any way.
How do you evaluate otome games and say ah, this game is ripe for localization?
Personally, at least, I try to have at least part of my ear (usually I can only manage a lobe or so) to the otome fan ground, so I can have some idea of what people over here in the West like, and would like to see more of. A lot of the games we’ve been looking at have been out for a while, so oftentimes I can look them up on the internet and find very in-depth…I hesitate to call them “summaries” since that implies that they leave something out. Since I can’t read Japanese and hence can’t really…play the games myself, this sort of thing is invaluable, at least to me. Beyond that, we usually go through the first part of the game as an office, and try to get a sense of the characters, setting, etc. Then we slaughter a chicken and consult its entrails to see if the gods favor this particular title. It’s a complex process.
Why did you want to pick up Sweet Fuse as the next otome title? Did puzzles give the game a broader appeal?
I think a possibly broader appeal was part of the reason we chose Sweet Fuse. A modern-day setting makes it a little more inclusive than, say, Hakuoki. A little bit more gameplay makes it more attractive to people who might be nervous about playing a straight-up VN [visual novel]. Personally, I voted for it because I liked Saki, the heroine.
What are the puzzles like in the game and did you have to change any of them for the US version?
“Puzzles” might be a bit of a misnomer. Apart from the standard “Pick option A or B” that you’d find in a VN, Sweet Fuse has two unique mechanics: What’s Wrong With You?! and Explosive Insight. The former pops up when someone does something especially idiotic or frustrating, and it involves being given the chance to either get mad, or keep your mouth shut. It’s kind of like the other choices, but with more spice! And it’s got a little graphic that plays, kind of like in Phoenix Wright. Explosive Insight is the more game-like of the two.
Several times during Sweet Fuse, you’ll run into situations that the characters are having trouble figuring out. If Saki feels like she might have the answer, you go into Explosive Insight mode, where she talks through what’s going on and highlights a couple key words or phrases. Your job is to pick three of the keywords. If one of the three you pick is the right one, you pass! If you blew it, it’s usually game over. Given the nature of these things, though, we didn’t really have to change anything big for the US release.
How does video game creator Keiji Inafune fit into this? What kind of game references are in Sweet Fuse?
Keiji Inafune is/plays Saki’s uncle. He’s kidnapped at the beginning of the story, but you get to communicate with him via text messages at certain points during the game. There are a few pretty oblique references (i.e., the first attraction is called “Samurai Fantasy VII”), but nothing particularly specific.
Can you tell us about the characters in Sweet Fuse? Which guy do you like the most and which one is so annoying you can’t stand him.
I love all of my boys equally, but if you’re going to twist my arm I’d probably have to go with Mitarashi or Shidou as my favs. They’re pretty much the Red Oni, Blue Oni trope (they even made sure to give Mitarashi red hair, in case it wasn’t clear enough already), which is a dynamic I really enjoy. They’ve also got a bromance going on that’s nearly as compelling as the main romance, at least in some of the routes.
As for who I can’t stand, I can’t really tell you because that would be a spoiler.
I remember the Trauma Center localizing team used House and ER as inspiration for the US scripts. Where do you get ideas for otome games?
I don’t think I used anything specific. As anyone will tell you, I’m naturally an incredibly romantic guy—I bought my girlfriend some tea once—and I watched Moulin Rouge a bunch of times in high school, so I’ve got a pretty good intuitive sense of what ladies are looking for in a relationship.
In all seriousness, though, I usually draw from a lot of different sources for inspiration. Sweet Fuse doesn’t map to existing media quite as nicely as Trauma Team, but my extensive knowledge of Law & Order informed Shidou’s characterization, and there’s a little bit of Johnny Depp’s Hunter S. Thompson in Shirabe.
Has the otome market grown since Hakuoki was released last year? And how do you think you can expand the genre even further?
Whether or not the market has grown is hard to say. To me, at least, it seems like there’s a little more stuff going on, but the truth is I didn’t really pay much attention to it before Hakuoki, so it’s possible that all that’s really changed is my perception.
I do think that Hakuoki illustrated to us (and, I imagine, to other publishers and developers) that there is a market for otome games. From what I’ve seen, fans of otome games are just as devoted and excited about their games as fans of any other genre. I don’t think there are a ton of them yet, since most have to learn Japanese or rely on fan translations and the like, but as more games come out, I think the otome fanbase will grow a lot.
As far as expanding the genre further, I think the most important things anyone can do are pay attention to what people are asking for, and treat the genre and its fans with the same respect anything else gets. I think there’s sometimes a tendency to dismiss otome games as just “Oh ha ha pretty boys”—which, to be fair, is something I’m probably guilty of from time to time—but a lot of them have plot and character depth that put other games to shame. They get pushed to the side or made fun of a lot, likely because gaming is still kind of a boys club, but my hope is that as they become more and more common otome games will get the same treatment in terms of coverage, marketing, and discourse that our other story-heavy games like 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward do. There are likely limits to how large the market is going to get—VNs and VN-ish games are still a bit of a shaky proposition here in the West, but I think they definitely have the potential to find a home over here.
Are there any otome games that you personally want to localize?
Does Duel Love count?
I’m honestly a little reluctant to drop any names here, because I don’t know that much about most of the games I know of, but bearing that in mind: The Black Wolves Saga games look kind of interesting, because it seems like they’re all about weird supernatural lycanthrope power politics—which sounds awesome—and I’d kind of like to do Toki no Kizuna, since it’s about demons which are also awesome. Unfortunately those are both PSP titles, and even if I started on them tomorrow, they probably wouldn’t be out until next year, at which point the PSP will be…long past its “sell by date.” But you never know!